Looking Back: A 2005 interview with Ken of Ken's Last Ever Radio Extravaganza
by Sandra Beckmeier of 30/3000
Certainly many faces have passed through the station since its inception in 1994. One such person is Ken of Ken's Last Ever Radio Extravaganza. A transplant from New York City, Ken's vivid audio collages were more about challenging convention, and our perceptions about how a story is told, or an issue is understood. He recently returned to New York City after two years at the station.
SB: When did your journey to produce radio begin? Give a bit of history about yourself.
KLERE: I started doing a radio show in 1994, but before that I was always playing things for people, two copies of the same thing or two versions of the same thing or combining different things using different radios that I thought fit together. As a kid I was fascinated with playing records backwards, slowly, using pins and coins and my fingernail and such. I also made a lot of weird tape edits when I was a kid, and I have a whole collection of strange "shows" I made on cassettes. When I was five I was into fixing radios, and I've always been fascinated by sounds, electronics, telephones, and general states of confusion.
So, getting into radio was just a natural continuation of what I'd already been doing (although I didn't realize this at the time).
My first few weeks of shows were basically the playing of songs, like it seemed we were supposed to be doing on the radio. Although I put a lot of energy into finding things that were new, obscure, or otherwise unfamiliar, and worked hard on mixing them sequentially in a way where they flowed well, I became quickly bored in the role of "jockey," feeling it was a waste of precious airtime not to really do the most with it I possibly could. I also produced a couple of public affairs shows, and I thought this, too, was not the fullest, most compelling way to communicate verbal ideas over the radio.
Should radio merely be someone's jukebox of CD's? A set of prerecorded songs by far-away artists played as is? I felt it was a forum with tremendous potential for live, creative performance, plus it seemed an injustice not to involve as many other people as possible - i.e. should the public be relegated to having to be "listeners" to their own airwaves? So, I felt it was my responsibility as someone who'd managed to get airtime on a radio station to turn that over as much as possible to as many "listeners" as possible. I maintain this to this day, putting all phone callers directly into the mix of whatever is going on. None of us can possibly know what's going to happen. It's just the combination of all of what we do in the present moment that makes the present moment what it is.
SB: Are you satisfied with any particular medium? What are your thoughts on webcasting, podcasting, etc.?
KLERE: I much prefer live media, like radio, public space performance, and telephonic things. There is just the present moment and no way of knowing what will happen, and then it's over and on to a new moment. Radio especially interests me because it's so unframed: Somebody randomly tunes in, to something unknown, from some random place, in the middle of something, and stays with it for some unpredictable amount of time. A listener might feel, What is this? Where is this? Why is this? And may never get answers. And then, the reception goes bad, another station drifts in, or the radio is turned off...there's no bounding of the experience.
I feel these sorts of things are lost on CD's, web-based archives, and other pre-recorded media. Even if they are straight, unedited recordings of live performances (as my web archive at http://lastever.org is), still, the listener gets it by conscious choice, knows what it's called and what he/she's picking, decides when to hit play and knows where it starts and ends. It's got this frame around it and so much mystery is lost, and with it the real opportunity to experience the thing in one's own unique and free way.
That said, one thing that's potentially nice about podcasting (which I reluctantly participate in) is that some people, though they made a choice at some point to subscribe to my program, now just have the shows find their way weekly onto their computers and audio players, and may randomly stumble onto one of my programs at some unplanned time. So, that's slightly more interesting than CD's or even the web-downloadable archives that exist independent of the podcasting gimmick.
Still, none of that compares to live performance, especially considering it's a lot harder to participate in something pre-recorded.
Thankfully, I've found that many HAVE found ways to put their own life back into the show archives: Some people download my shows and then remix them into their own work. There's someone with a radio show in Los Angeles who regularly mixes my shows into his mix. There's an art professor in Austin who would regularly play my shows to his students and have them draw the shows. People have made improvised dance performances around them.
So, overall I am still pretty thrilled with the internet MP3 archives, as the number of people all over the world who constantly listen to my shows just astounds me, and I know that, once the shows are out there, it's up to everyone else what to do with them. Transform them, collage them, edit them, set them on fire, I don't know! After I (and the live participants) make it, it's not up to me anymore.
But I don't expect to ever make an internet-only show, unless there is some live component to it at creation time. It needs to be made live with other beings involved or I don't think I want to do it.
SB: What fueled your desire to create live collages? Film? Music? Both?
KLERE: There's all this stuff around us all the time. I believe we are inherently creative beings. I think that's what life is about. And I think we're constantly influenced by everything that comes our way. If allowed to be free, I think it is natural to take what comes in and chew on it and then put it back out, changed. That's the life cycle. In this culture, we're discouraged from doing this so explicitly, because there's this philosophy of owning everything we make, and part of owning means not letting other people use those things except in the way we allow. So it's considered OK to listen to a song played to you in a public space or a waiting room, but somehow it's not considered OK to do anything but listen to it. You're not supposed to talk back to it, change it, copy it, share it. You're just supposed to be passive and only consume it in the way you're told. So creating collages of that which surrounds me seems a natural expression of freedom.
Then, doing these things live takes away the element of thought, of needing to package things, of needing things to be perfect, of trying to make things the way you think the observer wants to receive them rather than how you are inspired to. Furthermore, doing things live, spontaneously, in the present moment, I have found that there are things within me that I never would have known I had. Things I have never been conscious of. I'm generally astonished by what comes out during these shows. I often think they're exceptionally wonderful. But I can't exactly take credit for them. I didn't plan them. I didn't decide to do them that way. I just let go, turned off, and saw what would happen. To my repeated surprise, great things happen every time. A lot of this is the same stuff other people talk about when they discuss improvisation, as an art form, a way of life, etc. I think we all have this amazing stuff inside of us that we may not be aware of or letting come out, and if we just let down the barriers and stop thinking so much, our natural abilities turn out to be remarkably good. This is another reason I've always felt it was important to encourage live participation in the shows: To give as many other people the chance to also experiment, and improvise themselves, from the safety and anonymity of wherever they're calling from.
SB: You produce the show live, correct?
KLERE: I always do it completely live, yes. The ideas and the combinations and all the other happy coincidences* happen in the moment, without a prior plan or vision.
* Audio footnote: See "Coincident Symphony"
I've done a lot of live performance in public spaces, particularly while I was in NYC. Some of those have been simulcast on radio, while some were just there in the space. A lot of shows have been collaborations (intentional or otherwise) with other people, be they people playing instruments, reading poetry, spewing off gibberish, playing with a paper cutter, running in the rain...
Those shows can be scary (for me or for everyone else?), because the audience is right there, but of course all this incredible energy comes from that - especially when the audience is actively participating.
SB: Is there an experimental/performance radio genre firmly established anywhere that you know of?
KLERE: I can't say anything about genres, but there is a tiny handful of live experimental radio shows that I'm aware of, scattered sparsely around the world.
SB: Or is it a genre unfulfilled, generally speaking?
KLERE: I think there could be a whole lot more of it. As I mentioned before, as much as I think it's really great for radio stations to be forums for the exposure of otherwise unavailable music (and even that is a dying breed of station), I'd be happier if more people were experimenting and going beyond the narrow confines of the individual CD or record track. And I'd also like there to be MUCH more audience participation on our airwaves. It's the best way to find out what people are really thinking - unfiltered, open forum mass media.
SB: Do you have any limits when preparing a show? Is it a process that is long, then becomes improvisation?
KLERE: It's a little hard to explain how I "prepare" for shows. In my ideal setting, all the "preparation" involves finding a sort of headspace wherein I will be able to turn everything else off and give in to the moment. Over the years this has become more and more natural, and now I often don't even think about a show at all until I get to the station.
That said, I spend huge amounts of my time collecting sounds, on the off chance that any of them will be later used in a show. I have to try not to really know what I'm collecting (while somehow knowing well enough so I can find the interesting things in the first place), so that I can "discover" them live during a show. If I'm too familiar, it is likely to interfere with the dynamic present energy of the show.
Sometimes I gather a whole bunch of things thinking maybe I'll use them on the show, but then when it's time for the show to start, something completely different happens, either based on the tail end of the radio show before me (listen to "It's Too Much," 7/28/02 from WFMU - the first 30 minutes remix the previous DJ's lead-in song to my set), or a public service announcement I had to play ("Smoking: Isn't it about Dads?" 1/16/98 from WHRW, which uses nothing but PSA's), or feedback looping using the station's own internet simulcast, or one little accidental use of a piano piece that expands out fugue-like into 32 copies of that piece ("The Coming Storms," 4/20/04 from KOOP, using just one piece from the Terminator soundtrack), or the person conducting this interview speaking in the same time slot a week earlier ("Karen's Dead," 7/23/03, first in a series of Sandra Beckmeier remixes).
Sometimes there is an intentional constraint on the show, like where I follow another DJ and I take his entire show and remix it live right afterwards ("Ethnographic Extravaganza: World Manipulation," 8/25/01 from WFMU, all ethnographic world music recordings), or where I only use Austin-based artists for source material to remix live ("Around the Town Soundscape," 4/8/04 from KOOP).
I use really popular/familiar things, too, but rearrange them during the show to be different/jarring/whatever ("Loops in Love," 3/16/01 from free103point9: Largely based on a single loop from an Air Supply song). It all depends on the moment of the show, not the time before it. (All referenced shows can be listened to at http://lastever.org)
SB: What do you see as the challenges for producing a radio show in Austin?
KLERE: When I moved here from NYC, I worried that maybe there wouldn't be an audience for what I was doing in Austin, or maybe people would be offended or otherwise react negatively. Or that people wouldn't be interested in participating, and it'd be very one sided. But none of that turned out to be true: I have been just overwhelmed by the outpouring of positive feedback in the two years I've been doing the show in Austin. And Austin is small enough that everywhere I went I'd meet someone who knew of my show and was a fan.
SB: Do you think the future looks bright or dim for independent radio hacks with the relatively new outlets, i.e. satellite radio, podcasting, webcasting? Why?
KLERE: I think it's the same as with everything: If a medium that really gives the people a voice starts to get really popular, that medium tends to get grabbed up by corporate or government interests. In the case of satellite radio, it started right out as being a privately held thing (unlike the radio spectrum, which didn't used to be owned by a couple of corporations). The government and music industry also used new regulations and scare tactics to squash a lot of the initial explosion of webcasters a couple of years ago. Podcasting (which is technically just a gimmicky packaging of webcasting) will be another thing that gets personal audio publishing popular again, but watch for another crackdown.
SB: What is your take on conglomerates?
KLERE: They're the ones always on the take.
SB: In your opinion, how does community radio contribute to the greater good of broadcasting versus corporate controlled media?
KLERE: Community radio and micro-broadcasting (be it pirate radio or Low Power FM) are the only things that have a hope of giving a voice to the listening public. Whether they succeed or not is up to each individual station. Corporate-controlled media (including corporate-sponsored "non-commercial" radio) exists for the primary purpose of turning a profit for its owners/investors...so you're never going to ultimately get anything very good unless you're one of those owners.
SB: Where has your program been and where is it going?
KLERE: It's been on dozens of different stations and venues over the past 11 1/2 years, for a total of 752 hours of broadcast spanning 376 shows. About three complete years' worth of shows (86 hours) can be freely streamed or downloaded on the website, and you can subscribe to the "podcast" to automatically (and freely) receive a new show each week. To find out where it's going, one would have to stay with it in the present. You can sign up for the events mailing list on the website:
Ken's Last Ever Radio Extravaganza
Live improvised sound experiment
Thanks for listening...
Kens Last Ever Radio Extravaganza aired in Austin on Tuesday nights through July 2005,
and can now be heard online at http://lastever.org.